Max Scherzer and Strikeout History


Sunday afternoon, the heterochromatic Max Scherzer downed nine Los Angeles Angels on strikes–eight of them swinging–to boost his strikeout total to 195. That’s a total higher than that of every other pitcher in the major leagues, including Detroit Tigers teammate Justin Verlander, who has three fewer in 36 more innings. It also raises his personal record, which was set at 184 in 2010, as will continue to happen for more than a month of regular season baseball.

Next to modern marks like Nolan Ryan’s 383 in 1973, Sandy Koufax’s 382 in 1965, and Randy Johnson’s 372 in 2001, Scherzer’s seasonal strikeout total itself, which could narrowly eclipse 250, is not on pace to become historically significant. However, the clip at which he’s accumulated his punch-outs is highly remarkable. His present 195 have come in just 154.2 innings, giving him a K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) of 11.35.

That 11.35 mark has been achieved, in seasons by qualifying pitchers, only 17 times in baseball history. Those include seven by Randy Johnson (six of them consecutive), three by Pedro Martinez, two by Kerry Wood, one by Nolan Ryan, one by Dwight Gooden, and three by separate pitchers in 1884, none of whom exceeded 51 innings pitched.

On an arguably smaller scale, Scherzer has struck out at least eight batters in each of his last eight starts. That makes him only the second Detroit pitcher to do so since 1918, joining Hal Newhouser, who strung nine such games together in 1946. Scherzer has also pitched 11 games this year with nine or more strikeouts, the most such games by a Tiger pitcher since Mickey Lolich had 15 in 1971. Aided by those feats, he could conceivably combine with Verlander to form the first pair of Tigers ever to each strike out at least 240 men during the same season.

Oddly enough, Scherzer’s estimable success getting batters to flail has not been enough to generate overall success on the mound. Even after a stretch of 13 starts with a 2.77 earned run average, his aggregate sits at 4.13. Only three times–twice by Hideo Nomo and once by Brandon Morrow–has a qualified pitcher ever tossed a season with a K/9 of ten or higher and a concurrent ERA over 4.00, as Scherzer is currently threatening. Certainly a .347 batting average on balls in play and a 13.8% home runs per fly ball rate don’t help to keep an ERA deflated.

Despite some lingering issues limiting base-runners and questions about consistency, there’s no questioning that Scherzer’s raw pitching skill is matched by a seldom few. His continued triumph (he has now won his last four starts to move his record to 14-6) should prove vital for Detroit’s playoff hopes.